Mar 14, 2013 Social Media
The FTC has just released updated guidelines for disclosing online when you’re being paid to post something, and these guidelines are a little more helpful than what they’ve posted in the past. According to Mashable, they finally give an example of how to disclose in tweets. You’re supposed to put “Ad:” at the start of your tweets if they are advertisements.
That’s great as far as it goes, but what constitutes an ad? What if I’m just linking to a post that I was paid to write, but don’t actually say anything positive about the product in the tweet? What about if I’m saying something positive about a product that I was given for free, but wasn’t actually paid to write about? What if the post contains a disclosure, does the tweet have to as well?
Back when all of this stuff was being talked about everywhere amongst my fellow bloggers – when we had somehow convinced ourselves that the FTC was going to show up in the middle of the night and confiscate our computers if we didn’t disclose properly – I developed some twitter disclosures for myself, like *spon if I was tweeting about a post that had been sponsored, and *ad if the actual tweet itself was an ad purchased by a brand. It turns out that I was not disclosing the way the FTC wanted me to – I wish they had been more clear back then.
I’m absolutely not an expert on this, but I dove into the report to see what I could figure out regarding disclosing correctly in tweets. I looked at it through the lens of tweets since they are the most restrictive at only 140 characters. These guidelines should be applied to Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and other online platforms as well, but those give you more characters to work with, thus making it easier to disclose within them.
Most of what the report talks about simply does not apply to what bloggers such as myself do. It’s talking about traditional advertisements, where disclosure does not mean identifying an ad as an ad, but rather explaining a statement or claim made in the ad (for example, disclosing that even though products may be returned if the customer is not satisfied – “Satisfaction Guaranteed!” – this process will incur a restocking fee).
Much of the report deals with the conspicuousness of a disclosure as it has to do with font size and color – I’m ignoring those parts for these purposes and assuming that plain text will be used for social media disclosures.
“Required disclosures must be clear and conspicuous.” In the past I’ve added my twitter disclosures to the ends of my tweets. According to the FTC, in order to be conspicuous in a tweet, the disclosure can not come after a link – they claim that most people don’t read anything after the link in a tweet. (I disagree, but that doesn’t matter; it’s the FTC’s world, we’re just tweeting in it.)
The FTC says that disclosures should be “unavoidable,” and in a tweet that means right up front at the beginning.
“Use disclosures in each ad.” Sometimes when I’m a paid participant or host of a twitter party, I’ll tweet once or twice that I’m being compensated, and then drop it. If each tweet that is part of a sponsored campaign is indeed an advertisement, then each and every tweet needs to contain a disclosure. “Do not assume that consumers will see and associate multiple space-constrained advertisements.“
I run only a few twitter parties a year, so it seems reasonable to me that the average person would not associate me with paid twitter parties. But what about those bloggers who run several a week? Should they have to disclose in each tweet that they’re being paid? The FTC doesn’t discuss this directly in the report, but in their guide on using endorsements and testimonials in advertising, they indicate that there may be an exception regarding celebrities. Basically, a big exception for disclosure is made for celebrities in many instances because the average consumer understands that celebrities are paid to endorse products.
But how does that apply online? Are there twitter celebrities? Certainly someone like Scott Stratten, with almost 150,000 twitter followers, would be considered a twitter celebrity. But would the average twitter user assume that he gets paid to endorse things? I doubt it.
What about someone like Amy Bair, who invented twitter parties and sometimes hosts two in a single day? Is there a general understanding on twitter that she’s paid to host these parties? I think there probably is. But the FTC doesn’t go into it. I would really like to see more guidance from the FTC on this, but for most of us, I think it’s safe to say that we need to disclose in each and every tweet where we say something positive about a product if we have any kind of monetary relationship with the brand. (And this is where, once again, I will remind you that I’m not an expert, just a blogger trying to interpret these rules the best I can.)
“Advertisers should employ best practices to make it less likely that disclosures will be deleted from space constrained ads when they are republished by others.” In other words, if someone wants to retweet your ad with their own comment added, are they likely to delete your disclosure in the interest of space? Believe it or not, the FTC is putting the onus on you – the original tweeter – to make sure that there is a reasonable amount of space left so that that doesn’t happen. (Seriously?!?)
“Icons, abbreviations, and symbols are not adequate if they do not provide sufficient clues about the nature of the disclosure.” My use of *spon to indicate a sponsored tweet would not be sufficient, because I cannot assume that the average consumer knows that *spon is short for “sponsored.”
Including a link to a site that explains your disclosure – instead of disclosing within the tweet – is not OK. Remember cmp.ly? According to the report, simply adding a link to a disclosure explanation like those found on cmp.ly does not cut it. Sorry.
If you’re a paid endorser, spokesperson, or compensated ambassador for a brand, everything positive that you say about that brand (that is disseminated by you) should be marked as an ad. The FTC doesn’t come right out and say this in the report, but they imply it with examples.
Specific disclosures about claims made in a tweet must be contained in that tweet. If you say that you lost a certain amount of weight using a product, and your results were not typical, you have to make that disclosure in your tweet. Since tweets don’t leave much room for explanation, it would probably be easier not to include claims like that. You could probably include a sufficient disclosure on Facebook, however, where adding something like “results not typical” would not eat up too much space.
The only exception to this is if you’re linking to the only place that exists where a person can buy that product, and the disclaimer is placed prominently on the page linked to, because then a consumer would not be able to read your endorsement and then go out and buy the product somewhere else without clicking on the link and seeing the disclosure. I doubt that applies to anyone reading this (unless you’re selling your own product on your own site), so be careful when making claims in tweets – if you need to include a disclaimer and don’t have room, don’t make the claim.
What if you were given a product for free and tweet about it, is that an ad? I don’t know for sure. The report specifically deals with a situation where a blogger posted about paint she received for free and didn’t disclose properly, but does not address this kind of situation with regard to a tweet. Here’s my best educated guess: since my accountant makes me treat free products the same way I would treat cash, I’m going to assume that that treatment carries over to tweets, in that I was “paid” with the product. I’m not using this language to suggest that products are payment – don’t get me started on that topic. I’m just suggesting that for the sake of social media disclosure, the “Ad”:” standard would probably apply.
There’s further evidence to back up my gut feeling in the FTC guide to using endorsements, where they differentiate between a random person who is given a product by a company to review, and a person who routinely receives products to review. If you routinely receive products, then things that you say about those products will be considered endorsements, no matter the value of the products.
What if I don’t actually name the product in my tweet? If you’re not endorsing a product in your tweet – for example, you tease with “Who makes the best potato chips I’ve ever tried?” and then give a link – but nothing to indicate which brand it is – then you don’t have to disclose within the tweet (of course, if your post is sponsored or you received the samples for free, that has to be disclosed prominently in the post they’re clicking through to).
What if I name the product in the tweet, but don’t reveal how I feel about it? That’s a tough one. For example, what if you were to tweet “Click on the link to find out what I though about ACME brand hair gel!”? This is just my opinion, but my gut says you should still identify that as an ad, just to be safe. If you hadn’t been paid or given the product for free, then chances are you wouldn’t be tweeting about it.
Last, I’ll leave you with this: actual examples from the FTC of a tweet that does not disclose correctly, and one that does.
Originally posted on Behind the Screen. All opinions expressed on this website come straight from Amy unless otherwise noted. This post has a Compensation Level of 0. Please visit Amy’s Full Disclosure page for more information.